Risk Factors for Injury
One contributing factor to the increase in injuries is that cheerleading participants practice for significant amounts of time during a given week, and basically year-round. While many athletes condition all year long, cheerleading “seasons” can last much longer with active practice. They may cheer for a few different sports, such as football and basketball, which cover a large portion of the school year. In addition, they may be part of competition teams that practice during the summer months as well. The NCCSI report found an average cheerleading practice to last about 2.8 hours, and median annual practice days was 205.
There are a few significant risk factors that are most likely leading to the increase in number and severity of cheerleading injuries. First and foremost, the difficulty and danger of cheerleading routines has dramatically upped the risk. Gymnastic-like stunts are now common-place in cheer routines, including tumbling, and dangerous partner stunts (Jacobson, Redus, & Palmer, 2005). The role of cheerleaders has been expanded to include the purpose of being a highly skilled competing athlete, and with this change in focus comes increased competition and a willingness to risk injury for success (Mueller & Cantu, 2007). The main objectives of this activity no longer include leading cheers and chants from the sideline, but rather winning serious competitions and becoming the most innovative team with ever-increasing risky routine components.
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The level of danger seems to be higher in collegiate settings than in high school settings. Research indicates that upper-extremity injuries (including head/neck injuries) may be more common in college because of the increase in partner stunts (Jacobson, Redus, & Palmer, 2005). The rate of injuries among college cheerleaders was five times that of high school participants from 1982 to 2002 (Boden, Tacchitti, & Mueller, 2003). Gymnastic-like maneuvers have the highest degree of difficulty and risk, and usually are performed by more experienced squads such as college teams or All-Star high school squads. All-Star teams are club teams that are established outside of the school system and are usually highly selective.
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More difficult stunts and/or tumbling passes require the presence of a highly trained spotter to prevent injuries. Spotters and coaches may not be receiving the proper necessary training, which could be increasing the incidence of injury (American School Board Journal, 2005). A large proportion of catastrophic injuries either had an under-trained spotter, or did not have one present at all (Mueller & Cantu, 2007). A great deal of responsibility lies in the hands of the coach. They need to make sure their athletes are properly trained, and that spotters are always present. Coaches are under a lot of pressure to keep up with the competition by incorporating new, awe-inspiring stunts, because “all of the other cheerleading squads are doing it” (American School Board Journal, 2005, 56). However, they should make the distinction between a properly trained and able team, and a team that is not ready to perform complicated, dangerous stunts. When inexperienced teams attempt risky maneuvers, it makes them even more hazardous.